18 March 2013
Workers prepare the altar in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 18 March, the day before Pope Francis’ installation Mass. (photo: CNS/Paul Hanna, Reuters)
With the election of Pope Francis, a relatively unknown person appeared center stage in the Catholic Church. A great deal is made about his “firsts” — the first Jesuit, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere. There is a great deal of curiosity regarding who he is and what kind of a pope he will be. People, it seems, are falling over themselves to find and interpret “signs” which will tell the world who Pope Francis is.
A bit of context might help. It is estimated that the median age of the world’s population is 28.4 years. Pope John Paul II became pope on 16 October 1978 — that is, 35 years ago. This means that more than half of the world’s population has known only Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a fairly well-known entity when he was elected pope in 2005. Thus, for more than half the world’s population, the election of an unknown entity to the See of Peter is something new. In the long run of the church’s history, it is not that unusual. But it is to us, and hence the curiosity.
The inauguration of a pope is a very important time. It happens relatively rarely and is filled with symbolism — some of which is easily recognizable and some of which may be more arcane to the average observer. I was present in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul I was inaugurated as pope and bishop of Rome. The ceremony is moving and impressive. While each new pope will necessarily inject elements of his own personality into the ceremony of his inauguration, the ceremony is not ad-libbed by any means. It is not the personal show of any pope.
Because the inauguration of any pope is so highly structured and even orchestrated, if one is to search for “signs” and insights into the new pope’s personality and even agenda, those signs are going to be very, very subtle. They will be so subtle, in fact, that observers will come up with contradictory “signs.” Papal observers run the very real risk of being too clever by half. Nonetheless, a papal inauguration is by no means totally devoid of indications of what the future might bring. (The Vatican has released details of tomorrow’s liturgy on its news website.)
If I were to come up with a significant indication in the inauguration of Pope Francis, it would be the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. Since 1054 the Eastern and Western churches have not only been divided; they have all too often been hostile to each other. There has not been a patriarch of Constantinople at a pope’s inauguration or a pope at a patriarch of Constantinople’s installation for well over a thousand years. This is significant.
In a world where the Arab Reawakening continues to cause great alarm among Christians in the Middle East, Pope Francis’ decision to postpone his first public audience in order to meet with the Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops of the Eastern churches is also significant. This might be an indication that Pope Francis is concerned about the unity of the church. It might be a sign also that he is concerned about the catholicity of the church in a way that we have not seen for a while. Yet in all this, only time will tell.
It is still probably better to participate in and observe Pope Francis’ inauguration as a believer rather than as a detective.
15 February 2013
Tags: Pope Francis Catholic Pope Patriarchs Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I
A red skull cap is seen as the world’s cardinals gather in St. Peter’s Basilica before the start of the last conclave in this 2005 file photo. (photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec)
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI continuing to generate headlines and analysis, we asked our external affairs officer, Father Elias Mallon, to look at a few little-known facts about papal elections.
For several centuries the bishop of Rome was chosen in the same manner as other bishops — by the clergy, the neighboring bishops and the people of Rome. In 709, a Synod of the Lateran abolished the role of the people of Rome in the selection of the bishop. Nonetheless, slightly less than a hundred years later, in 862, the right of approval was restored to the Roman nobility by Pope Nicholas I.
In 1059, Pope Nicholas II decreed that the pope should be elected by the cardinals, although the system he set up was very different from the present one and a pope took office still only after the assent of the clergy and laity of Rome.
The conclave (Latin: cum clave, “[locked in] with a key”) was in place by the time of Pope Gregory X (1271-1276). Gregory set up stringent rules intended to prevent the extremely lengthy elections that had taken place in the past. Cardinals were secluded, were without private rooms and were allowed only two servants. After three days, they were to receive one meal a day; after five days, only bread and water. Over the centuries popes added, removed and modified different aspects of the conclave. Pope John Paul II codified the procedures now in place in 1996. The present conditions under which cardinals in conclave live aren’t as harsh as those prescribed by Gregory but they are still, nonetheless, monastic.
The number of cardinals has varied greatly over the centuries. Pope Sixtus V limited the number to 70 in 1587. However, in 1970 Pope Paul VI raised the number to 120, stipulating that cardinals over the age of 80 at the time of a pope’s death (or resignation) are ineligible to vote in a conclave. It is estimated that at times the College of Cardinals consisted of less than 10 cardinals.
The youngest pope ever elected was Giovanni di Medici who took the name Leo X. He was elected in 1513 at the age of 38. Although he was tonsured and, therefore, a cleric, he was not ordained or the member of a religious order at the time of his election. In 533, a man named Mercurius was elected. He thought it inappropriate for the bishop of Rome to have the name of the Roman god Mercury and changed his name to John (II). Since then, most popes have changed their names on being elected. The last pope to keep his baptismal name was Pope Marcellus II, who reigned less than 20 days in April 1555.
25 January 2013
Tags: Pope Benedict XVI Vatican Pope Patriarchs Vocations (religious)
Pope Benedict XVI received the leaders from several Oriental Orthodox Churches on the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, to discuss the progress of talks between them to reach full communion. Click the video to watch. (video: Rome Reports)
With the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity drawing to a close today, and Pope Benedict XVI meeting with members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches, we asked our external affairs officer Father Elias Mallon to explore a few interesting facts about the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox.
The Oriental Orthodox churches are six ancient churches that differ from the various Orthodox churches in the Byzantine tradition, such as the Greek, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian, etc. They are: the Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, Eritrean Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church and the Indian Orthodox Church, which is split into two groups, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church. Many of these churches have Catholic counterparts in full communion with Rome: the Armenian, Coptic, Ge’ez, Syriac and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches are much smaller than their Orthodox counterparts and share their liturgical rites, traditions and many of the same disciplines.
These Orthodox churches are very ancient. The Coptic church traces its beginnings to St. Mark the Evangelist. The Syriac churches of the Antiochene tradition trace their roots to St. Peter. The Armenian church prides itself on being the oldest national church as Christianity became the state religion of Armenia in 301, though it traces its roots to Sts. Bartholomew and Thaddeus.
These churches are not in communion with the Catholic Church and the Byzantine Orthodox churches. The split between the Oriental Orthodox churches and the rest of Christianity is traditionally dated to the Council of Chalcedon (451). This council’s formulation of the relationship of the humanity of Jesus to his divinity was not acceptable to the Oriental Orthodox church for various reasons. Modern theological and historical research among the Catholic, Byzantine Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches has come to the conclusion that the differences that have existed for almost 15 centuries are cultural and linguistic, and need not necessarily be church dividing.
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches have improved dramatically since Vatican II. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue has — often against great odds, such as the arrest of Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church by the Egyptian authorities from 1981-1985 — made considerable progress, resulting among other things with the official Statement of Christological Agreement that was signed 12 February 1988, overcoming one of the major obstacles to unity between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches. Some ecclesialogical issues remain, but the commission continues to study the issues and to attempt to resolve them.
CNEWA works where all these churches originated and maintain large communities — Armenia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Iraq and Syria — and has developed an outstanding rapport with its leaders. CNEWA exercises the dialogue of charity in its many forms of assistance, from priestly formation in Ethiopia, refurbishing Syriac churches in the Middle East to humanitarian assistance in Armenia.
11 January 2013
Tags: Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Eastern Churches Orthodox Oriental Orthodox
Pope Benedict XVI exchanges the sign of peace with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during a Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 11 October to mark. the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The Mass also opened the Year of Faith. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Pentarchy, after the Greek for “five leaders,” refers to the five patriarchates in the early church. Originally, these patriarchates were located in important Roman cities that were significant for Christians for several reasons. First, the Christian community in each city was founded by one of the Twelve Apostles. Second, the cities contained large Christian communities led by a prominent bishop. The five patriarchates and their founders are: Rome, founded by Peter; Constantinople, founded by Andrew; Alexandria, founded by Mark; Antioch, founded by Peter; and Jerusalem, founded by James.
Although all five patriarchates still exist, several factors contributed to their decreasing role in Christianity. The bishops of Rome had historical problems with the apostolic roots of Constantinople. Schisms divided the early church, especially Alexandria and Antioch. In the seventh century, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria fell to Arab Muslim armies. After the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204, the churches of East and West, which had drifted apart, definitively broke communion with one another. And in May 1453, Constantinople, which had assumed dominance over the remaining Eastern patriarchates, fell to the Ottoman Turks, leaving Rome as the only patriarchate in the hands of Christians. The ensuing vacuum opened the way for the creation of other patriarchates, such as Moscow, “the Third Rome,” to grow in influence. Nonetheless the five ancient patriarchates still exist and function in different ways in the Eastern and Western churches. Following is a brief history, listed in order of prominence according to the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Rome. Christianity came to the capital of the Roman Empire within 25 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Two of the most important Christian leaders, Peter and Paul, worked in Rome. The presence of their tombs in Rome made the city a center for pilgrimage. The bishop of Rome was always given some type of primacy as the bishop not only of the city of the tombs of Peter and Paul, but as the bishop of the Imperial Capital. When the seat of the empire moved East to Constantinople in 330, the role of the bishop of Rome took on increasing importance, especially in the West.
Constantinople. In 330, the Emperor Constantine moved the Imperial Capital to the Greek city of Byzantion. He and his successors played a major and at times questionable role in the history of Christianity. It was unthinkable that the bishop of the new capital, the “New Rome,” should not enjoy privilege equal to that of the other patriarchates. Thus, the patriarchate of Constantinople was erected. Though created after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, it played a huge role. Presently, the patriarch of Constantinople — modern Istanbul — is the “Ecumenical Patriarch,” and he is considered the first among equals in the Orthodox Church. Since the fall of Constantinople, the number of Christians in the patriarchate has decreased. Relations between Rome and Constantinople, once hostile, have improved greatly since Vatican II.
Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was the literary and cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity came very early to Egypt. It was among Egyptian Christians, known as Copts (from the Greek word aigyptos, meaning “Egypt”), that Christian monasticism first developed. In contrast with Antioch, Alexandria had its own school of theological thought. Copts today make up an important community in Egypt.
Antioch. The capital of the Roman province of Syria, Antioch was the place where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The New Testament several times mentions Peter being in Antioch, which eventually produced many important theologians who contributed to a distinct theological school. Conquered by the Muslims, sacked by the Crusaders and subject to large earthquakes, the city lost its importance both in the political and ecclesiastical worlds. Its ruins are near present day Antakya in Turkey.
Jerusalem. Considered the “Mother Church,” Jerusalem was never very influential. Its destruction by the Romans in the year 70, and the expulsion of the Jews as the Romans transformed the city into a Roman center in 136, contributed to Jerusalem’s lesser role in the pentarchy. In April 637, Patriarch Sophronius surrendered the city to the Muslim Khalif, Umar ibn Khattab.
CNEWA is an institution of the church of Rome, yet it works with Christians who make up all of the ancient patriarchates.
30 November 2012
Tags: Pope Patriarchs Church Antiochene church Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria
With Gaza very much in the news this week, we thought it would be helpful to look at some of the region’s remarkable history — and share a few little-known facts. So here are five things to know:
The area now known as the Gaza Strip got its name from the ancient city of Gaza. Gaza has been on the stage of world history for almost 4,000 years. The area of what is now the Gaza Strip was the site of several Egyptian fortresses from the end of the Early Bronze Age (3000-2100 B.C.) through the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1550 B.C.).
The city of Gaza is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and once in the New. Gaza was one of the five Philistine cities that Judah was unable to conquer (Judges 1:18). It was the city where Samson was held captive after having been betrayed by Delilah. It was in Gaza that Samson caused a temple to collapse, killing himself and his Philistine captors (Judges 16:21-51).
The present Gaza Strip consists of 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) and is slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with 1,710,257 people as of July 2012. According to UN statistics, 43.8 percent of the population is under 14 years of age; half of the population is under 18 years old and unemployment is above 40 percent. The vast majority of the population is Muslim; only about 3,000 Christians live there today.
The Pontifical Mission for Palestine, CNEWA’s operating agency in the region, is working with the local church in Gaza to provide on-the-job-training to young people and jobs for women who have graduated from school. Our Jerusalem-based staff are also working to help educate handicapped children in Gaza. Last summer, we shared here some of the work being done by CNEWA to help meet the health needs of the people. You can help the families of Gaza now. Click here to learn more.
31 August 2012
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Israel Holy Land
Religious leaders hold oil lamps during the gathering for peace outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi last October. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Not long ago, we received a letter from a reader who was concerned about all the attention CNEWA gives to ecumenism — that is, the efforts to increase understanding and promote unity with other churches and communities. Aside from being a part of CNEWA’s original mandate from the Holy Father, working toward the unity of Christians is woven intricately into the fabric of Catholic teaching. We asked Father Elias D. Mallon, CNEWA’s external affairs officer, to address that in this week’s “Take Five.”
- Vatican II (11 October 1962 — 8 December 1965) issued the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) on 21 November 1965. In the decree the council stated: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principle concerns of the Second Vatican Council” (par. 1). This decree made ecumenism an integral part of the work of the Catholic Church.
- Regarding other churches, the council stated: “Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church...” and “the separated churches and communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the church” (par. 3)
- Thirty years later, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) of 25 May 1995, Blessed John Paul II declared: “Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian Unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ [the Holy Father’s emphasis] which is added to the church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all she is and does...” (par. 20)
- The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is part of the Roman Curia and is responsible for maintaining relations with non-Catholic churches and communities and for sponsoring dialogues with them. Its current president is Cardinal Kurt Koch, former bishop of Basel, Switzerland.
- The Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (Geneva, Switzerland) engages in discussions with Orthodox and Protestant Christians who are members of the World Council of Churches. Among other things, the Joint Working Group helps prepare the theme and text for the annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). The Week of Prayer is observed by Christians all over the world. The observance of this week was started in 1908 by the Rev. Paul Wattson (d. 1940), founder of the Friars of the Atonement and influential in the founding of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Many dioceses throughout the world have an ecumenical officer who is responsible for local relations with other Christians. This includes local dialogues, prayer services and common community activities. In recent years, the ecumenical officer is also responsible for relations with non-Christians.
17 August 2012
Tags: Vatican Ecumenism Christian Unity Pope John Paul II
In this image from last month, Palestinian girls in Jerusalem hold torches during a celebration to mark the breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
(photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters)
Last month, as Muslims began to mark Ramadan, we posted some interesting facts on the season from Fr. Mallon, our education and interreligious affairs officer. This weekend, as the season draws to a close, he shares some further thoughts.
Every year Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan. During this month Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, engage in works of charity and attempt to spend more time in prayer and in reading the Qur’an. At the end of each day, Muslims observe what is called the iftar or breaking of the fast for that day. The daily iftar is generally a joyful event. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate ‘eid ul-fitr (Eidul [or sometimes Id] Fitr), the joyful time of the close of the month of fasting.
There are only two major holy days in Islam. The most important is ‘eid ul-’adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, at the closing of the annual pilgrimage and ‘eid ul-fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast at the end of Ramadan.
Of the two feasts, ‘eid ul-’adha is theologically the more important and is referred to sometimes as the “greater feast” and ‘eid ul-fitr is referred to as the “lesser feast.” However, the situation is much like that of Christians with Easter and Christmas. Easter is the primary feast of the Christian faith. Nonetheless, for the vast majority of Christians it is Christmas that bears most of the traditions and which has an emotional hold on their religious imagination. So too with Muslims: this feast marking Ramadan’s end creates a bigger stir. For Muslims ‘eid ul-fitr is a time for new clothes, family gatherings, exchange of gifts, decorating with lights, etc. While ‘eid ul-fitr may be the “lesser feast,” it is the one which Muslims celebrate with the greatest amount of joy. In many places, the opening of ‘eid ul-fitr is announced with the firing of a canon. Muslims go to the mosque to greet the beginning of the feast with special prayers and then return home to feasting and celebrating which can last for up to three days.
27 July 2012
Tags: Jerusalem Interreligious Islam Palestinians Ramadan
Satellite dishes cover the rooftops of homes in Aleppo, Syria. (photo: Spencer Osberg)
Syria has been in the news for almost a year now and the news has not been good. The Red Cross has declared that the conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition now amounts to a civil war. Although caught up in a violent struggle for its future, Syria is nonetheless one of the oldest and most interesting cultures in the Middle East, if not the world.
Here are five interesting facts about this country that has very deep religious roots:
Aleppo, Arabic Halab, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and the largest city in Syria. Excavations show that there was a village on the site already 6,000 years before Christ. For over 5,000 years, the city has been at the crossroads for trade between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For many centuries it was the beginning of the Silk Road to China.
The Hebrew Bible never mentions the word Syria, which is a Greek word, but always refers to the area as Aram. Aramaic, which is perhaps the language spoken by Jesus and which has developed into several dialects, received its name from this part of the world. There are Christian villages in Syria where the people still speak a modern form of Aramaic.
In the Acts of the Apostles 9:10-11 Ananias is instructed in a vision to go to meet Paul at the house of a disciple named Judas who lived on Straight Street. Although most of the streets in the old city of Damascus are not marked, the author was able to find Straight Street, which is a rather long and, yes, unusually straight street that still exists in the old city of Damascus.
The Umayyad Mosque. The Romans constructed a huge temple to Jupiter over a much older Semitic temple. In 391, the Roman Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian cathedral, which was ultimately dedicated to St. John the Baptist. According to pious legend, which is continued by Muslims, the head of John was preserved in the cathedral and is still in the present mosque. In 635, the Muslim armies conquered Damascus and from 635 until 706 both Christians and Muslims shared the building for worship. Beginning in 706 the cathedral was demolished and the present mosque was built. One of the minarets is called sayyiduna ‘isa, Our Lord Jesus. Some Muslims believe that at the end of the world Jesus will return to the mosque in Damascus.
Christians comprise about 10 percent of the population of Syria. Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world—some dating back to the time of the Apostles—can be found in Syria. The city of Damascus is the home to three Christian Patriarchs! The Patriarch of the Syriac (before 2000: Syrian) Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church all live in Damascus.
6 July 2012
Tags: Syria Middle East
Mosques and churches dot the Soulimanya neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria.
(photo: Spencer Osberg)
At CNEWA, we throw around a lot of exotic words. Most can be looked up in a dictionary or style book. But a few require a little more digging. Here are five from the Middle East that required CNEWA’s resident biblical languages scholar, Atonement Friar Elias Mallon, to decipher.
al-quds — This word means, “The Holy,” in Arabic and is the Muslim name for Jerusalem, the city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jews and Christians refer to the city by its (very) ancient name, yɘrušalayim, from which the English word, Jerusalem, derives. Muslims give Jerusalem an honorific title, “the Holy,” much like Christians refer to Rome as “the eternal city.”
qurbana — This is the Syriac and Aramaic word for the Eucharist. The root meaning of the word is “to bring near (God); to offer.” Interestingly, the Aramaic word appears in Mark 7:11, where Jesus condemns it when an adult child does not support his parents because he declares his wealth as Corban, i.e. “offered to God.” In Matthew 15:6, in the same context, the evangelist uses “offered to God” in Greek rather than the Aramaic word.
‘īsā — The name of Jesus in the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, and the name used by Muslims, who revere Jesus as a great prophet and Mary as his virgin mother. Muslims do not believe Jesus is divine nor do they believe that Jesus was crucified (Qur’an 4:158); rather, they believe Jesus is in heaven waiting to return at the end of time.
yasu‘ — The name for Jesus used by Arabic-speaking Christians; the different names of Jesus used by Muslims and Christians are reminders that the two communities understand the person and role of Jesus very differently.
allah — The word used for God by Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Syriac and Aramaic word for God is alah. Although Arabic-speaking Jews, Christians and Muslims use the same Arabic word for God, they use slightly different words in Syriac and Hebrew. Nevertheless, all three words come from the same root and are closely related.
16 May 2012
Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Christian
“Why don’t Muslims speak out against violence and intolerance and for pluralism and democracy?” This a question one often hears from non-Muslims. Less frequently, one hears Muslims reply: “We have and we do; why aren’t non-Muslims listening?”
Rarely in the media does one read of Muslim scholars and leaders condemning violence. So the question of the non-Muslims is understandable. When Muslims do take stands for tolerance and pluralism, media coverage is minimal or non-existent. In fact, Muslims are justified in their response.
This was the problem the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the Islamic Society of North America sought to address on Monday 14 May at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It was entitled “Symposium on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Minorities in Islam” and it consisted of two panels. The first panel featured three scholars who spoke on the concept and history of Shari’a (Muslim law) and how minorities had variously fared in Muslim societies over the centuries. The second panel addressed the topic of “Contemporary Islamic Perspectives on the Status of Religious Minorities, Particularly Post-Arab Spring.” While the first part of the program was well done and interesting to the specialist, it was the second part that merits wider attention by the general public.
Professor Tamara Sonn of the College of William and Mary spoke of contemporary Arab Muslim thinkers who reflect on the nature of government and the status of citizens in a modern democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslim. Many, if not most, hold the equality of all citizens to be of the utmost importance. Differentiating between the executive and legislative functions of government, these scholars provide an intellectual framework for the full integration of the non-Muslim into the political life of a democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslims.
Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool of South Africa to the United States reflected on the struggle of South African Muslims against apartheid. Less than three percent of the population, Muslims in South Africa learned firsthand what it means to be a minority living with discrimination. Ambassador Rasool said that his experience as a member of a minority brought him to the conviction that, “what you demand as a minority you must give when you are a majority.” Thus, for Muslims to demand freedom of speech, religion, etc., when they are a minority is thoroughly justified. However, that brings with it the obligation to grant and protect those same rights for other minorities in situations where Muslims hold the majority. In a sense, Ambassador Rasool was calling for a human rights-focused, political version of the Golden Rule.
Qamar-ul Huda of the U.S. Institute of Peace recounted the discussions about the benefits and limits of assimilation for Muslims in non-Muslim societies. He noted that in the West, many Muslims have resisted calls to remain isolated and have become active politically in working for the public good. The rights of all citizens are central and crucial to the health of a society. Mr. Huda felt the self-isolation of minority communities was ultimately self-defeating. The dichotomies of "us and them" and of secular and religious are not helpful, he commented. It is important for Muslims in non-Muslim countries to realize the term “secular” is not opposed to “religious.” Indeed, religions often prosper better in societies that are “secular,” although some secular societies admittedly can be aggressively so and hostile to religion.
The symposium clearly showed that Muslims are struggling with how to live in new situations in an increasingly pluralistic world. In a sense, it is similar to the struggles that Catholics experienced in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the experiences of these Catholics that helped bring about Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious freedom promulgated at Vatican II.
Muslim scholars and the average Muslim living in non-Muslim societies are developing new ways of looking at pluralism, democracy and the equality of all citizens in a society. The symposium at Georgetown provided a privileged opportunity to see this process at work.
Tags: Unity Muslim Christian-Muslim relations Multiculturalism